When people think rural, they imagine the vast plains of the Midwest or the rugged and remote splendor of the Rocky Mountains. Yet North Carolina, located along the eastern seaboard, has one of the largest rural populations in the union.
That fact hasn't gone unnoticed by government officials in Raleigh who serve the state's 8 million plus residents, nearly half of which live in rural counties. What they found disturbing was the fact that many rural Internet-service subscribers had difficulty connecting to the Web through local dial-up, and those who wanted faster access, had to pay roughly $230 per month for a 128Kbps Internet connection compared to just $50 per month in the state's urban areas.
To correct the imbalance, the state established the Rural Internet Access Authority and gave it a broad mandate to establish local dial-up Internet access for every telephone exchange in the state (a goal they met last year) and high-speed Internet access at competitive prices within three years, increase the number of Internet subscribers within the state, create "telecenters" in the state's most economically distressed areas and develop Internet applications that improve government services in a number of areas, including education and health care.
Despite the ambitious goals, the authority has several things that will help ensure success. First, its governance structure places the authority under the wing of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, which is a private, nonprofit organization, not a government agency. Second, it has received $30 million in funding from the state. The money comes from the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina, a state-funded nonprofit group that went private in 1999 and then spun off a business and sold it for $750 million. Finally, the authority is headed by Jane Patterson, a technology veteran with careers in both the public and private sector.
When talking about the authority, Patterson makes its strategy sound simple. "We look at the supply and demand for Internet access in North Carolina," she said. The supply side has to do with infrastructure, or the lack of it, in rural North Carolina. The supply side of the equation covers citizens' needs for learning how to use the Internet and finding affordable access.
Besides accomplishing its first goal of universal access through local dial-up, the Rural Internet Access Authority has established five telecenters around the state that provide everything from public access to the Internet to training, video conferencing capabilities, Web design assistance and a variety of e-commerce services, including facilities for call center support.
The authority's Web site
has installed a GIS map of the state's telecom infrastructure that lets visitors find out what telecom holes exist in their area in terms of coverage. "That kind of information is important to people who want to advocate for better services," explained Patterson. A recent study of Internet access in North Carolina by KPMG Consulting found that DSL technology is available in only 46 percent of the phone companies' central offices, Nationally, the number is between 60 percent to 80 percent.
Visitors to the authority's site also can type in their phone number and get a list of every Internet Service Provider serving their area. The state has 127 ISPs, far less than what was originally estimated. Those ISPs that registered with the state have hotlinks to their Web sites, according to Patterson.
To ensure that the Internet becomes firmly embedded in the fabric of rural life in North Carolina, the authority recently launched an e-communities program, which will leverage local involvement in establishing connectivity, access and adoption of the Internet. To do that the authority is working to identify local champions of Internet access in each of the state's rural counties and has asked the counties to submit plans on how they plan to address connectivity, access and the adoption of critical Internet applications at the local level. These applications may involve welfare programs, health care and education. The authority has set aside $4 million in grant money for e-communities and hopes to raise another $2.5 million as well.
Yet, even with $30 million to start, Patterson says that funding remains an issue. She points out that as the regional Bell rolls out DSL service to its central offices throughout the state, many rural residents still must wait to be connected. Then there's the problem of getting the state's rural, local governments online and capable of offering transactional, e-government services. That's a major issue, Patterson lamented.
At some point, the state needs to rethink how it views Internet access so that it is no longer viewed as an option, but as an integral infrastructure and public service. "We are really trying to develop a model where the state continues to look at the Internet constantly, just like it does for water, sewer and highways," said Patterson.